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A bill that would change the way schools are funded gained committee approval Thursday, despite some lawmakers' concerns that it might be too dramatic of a switch from the current system.
The Senate Education Committee voted 6-1 to advance SB110 to the Senate floor after about an hour and a half of debate. The bill would force school districts to send at least 85 percent of state dollars received directly to schools. That money would have to be distributed based on student needs, and local principals would be charged with preparing their own school budgets for district approval.
"We have patterns of success around the nation where local school-based budgeting was approved and has been highly successful," said bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. "I believe we could empower school communities to actually take charge of their budgets."
Lisa Snell, with the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit California-based organization dedicated to advancing free markets, said such an approach would allow dollars to follow students, meaning schools would be funded based on student needs and not staff needs.
"This is not a new program. It's not a crazy idea," Snell said, noting it's been implemented in a number of other places. "Principals should be instructional leaders who use their resources to drive instructional improvements."
Others, however, expressed concerns.
Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, said while she supports locally controlled funding in schools, she worries that the bill would place too much additional responsibility on already hard-working principals.
Snell responded that districts would likely help principals form budgets, changing their missions to that of supporting principals and possibly downsizing their central offices.
State school board member Tami Pyfer also spoke out against the bill, saying principals already exercise some control over their school budgets, and Utah already ranks highly when it comes to equitably distributing funding among students. She said the bill might result in principals having to hire more people to help them manage their budgets. The state school board opposes the bill.
"I don't see the problem," Pyfer said. "I see this creating more problems."
But Peter Cannon, a Davis School Board member speaking as an individual, said it would be good for local schools to have more control over their budgets, and the change could foster more innovation and competition between schools.
Judi Clark, with Parents for Choice in Education, praised the bill as a "great way to empower teachers and principals."
Other lawmakers were somewhat on the fence about the idea Thursday, despite assertions from Stephenson that the change wouldn't actually be a massive shift. Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said he supported the concept but wanted to hold onto it in committee to tweak it. He wondered if it might be better at first as a pilot program rather than a statewide change.
The committee voted against holding it in committee and against a later motion to send it back to the rules committee so it could be studied more after the session.